It’s Israeli entrepreneurs who make the startup nation The Startup Nation. |v| is interviewing 12 outstanding founders on their current successes and past mistakes.

Interview #4/12

Jenny Drezin/ Photo: Sidekix archive

Jenny Drezin, co-founder and CMO of Sidekix, an app that began to make urban exploration safer, but made it more fun instead – on turning the first startup into a success.

Jenny Drezin, a co-founder of Sidekix used to work at United Nations promoting safety for women. After moving to Israel four years ago with her family, she started a navigation app to help users to find a safer way through a city. Identifying a bigger opportunity with pedestrians overall, the team pivoted, building a “waze for walkers” which tailors routes to personal interests. Today Sidekix is available in over 100 destinations all over the world and helps urban dwellers get most out of their city.  

Lisa Avsiyan and Katya Rozenoer spoke with Jenny on her entrepreneurship experience.

– Can you explain what Sidekix actually does and how?

Sidekix is a smart walking navigation app which offers a choice of routes based on where you’re going and what’s around you. The idea is that in any big city there are multiple ways to get around, and often going a different route can give you a very different experience. So, for example, if you’re in a very busy place in New York City where there’s a lot of commerce and businesses, we can show you many different route options including those based on culture, shopping, food, nightlife, etc. We offer you a choice and you can decide on the experience that you want to have.

– Sounds like a mix of Google Maps and Foursquare?

I’ll explain it this way. You have navigation apps that are about just taking you the shortest or fastest way from A to B and you have lifestyle apps. Foursquare, Yelp, those fall into the lifestyle category.

Lifestyle apps are going to show you cool things in the city, anywhere in the city. In a sense, we’re a melding of the two because Foursquare or Yelp might be recommending something in one location here, but it could be the complete opposite of where you are going. What we do is unique: the route is based on your interests or what you want to see or do along the way.

– How did it all start for you?

We actually started out as a safety app. Working for the UN I used to travel a lot. I always liked to walk around and explore. But when you’re by yourself, especially in an unfamiliar city, safety is always a concern.

After building a prototype, we realized that safety is very difficult to market and even harder to guarantee. So we decided to take what we already built and repackage it into something more fun, but still super useful. Having traveled to so many places, I knew there was this fun element of urban discovery that was missing in navigation. Every time I’m outside of a familiar area, even in my own city, I use navigation tools. But navigation only shows you the shortest way, when in reality there can be many ways to go from Point A to Point B.

With that in mind we turned our safety app into a one for on foot urban exploration.

Sidekix team by their office at Tel Aviv University/Pic: Lisa Avsiyan

– At what point did the pivot happen?

We’d been working for around 10 months already on the app so a lot of the infrastructure was already built.

– Before coming up with the idea for pivot, did you have exhausting brainstorming sessions or did the realisation come overnight?

It evolved over time, from many discussions, from asking people what they do when they’re walking in a city. There was no particular event that crystallized the whole thing, you just realize something isn’t working right. And initially you hold onto it because you want to make it work.

– Was there a thought to just let it all go instead of starting something different?

No. Well, I mean, everyday you have those thoughts, right? Everyday you have crazy ups and downs. But we were already going full-force for a while. I liked the environment. I was learning so much because it was new for me. It was really all new. We thought, “Let’s at least try it. Let’s see what we can build, if we can get funding, and how we can move it forward?” Actually things started moving forward very quickly after we made this switch. We got funding. We started building the product. To me it also felt like if a weight was lifted off my shoulders: instead of dealing with a very serious issue, all of a sudden I started doing something fun. I’ve never worked on something like that.

In 6 Months Sidekix went live in more than 100 cities and got featured in major media outlets

– For someone who is new to the startup world you speak about getting funding as if it’s some trivial matter. You say: “We got funding. We started building the product.” Normally, there’s a long story about knocking the doors and not getting anything.

This is because we didn’t go the normal path of like, “Okay, now it’s time to raise funding. Let’s go knock on all sorts of random doors.” We already developed relationships with the people who became our lead investors. They had been our advisors from the very beginning: one came through our acceleration program the Hive and another one through other connections.
We didn’t even intend for them to become our investors it rather naturally came with the relationship: while being our advisors they got to know us as a team, they knew the product, they understood the way we thought, and they believed in us. And I have to say, we’re really fortunate to have their support.
A suggestion I’d give to anyone based on our experience is this: “Make sure your advisors are themselves, successful entrepreneurs with exits, with companies, whatever it is because they can really help you.”

City partnerships are key to Sidekix. Jenny and Miron Perel, Sidekix CEO with UK Foreign Secretary (and former London Mayor) Boris Johnson /Pic: Sidekix archive

– Sidekix is now live in 100 cities. How is it possible to achieve something like that so fast?

The way we open up a city has to do with the quality of our data. Basically, we have a routing algorithm and we collect data from different sources. We have millions of points of data and it was very important for us, that the app be valuable from day one, no matter how many people are using it.

– Are there human curators in the cities also?

Yes. Because we always want to show another side to the city, we don’t want to be showing chain restaurants and things like that. We want to walk you through what we call “urban gems” and for that we work with local bloggers/influencers who know their cities really well.

– How do you market a B2C app like yours?

Look, at the very beginning, you try a lot of things. You experiment. I don’t have a right answer. Nobody has the answer now and nobody knows what’s going to make an app really take off and go viral. There are millions of apps out there and for that reason marketing consumer apps is very challenging.
But there is ASO – App Store optimization – which is a way of getting your app higher ranked in the store so that people can actually discover you there. In addition we are now building viral features within the app, which helps a lot. The most important element is to have an app that people want to share, so that the product in effect sells itself.

– You are pretty well known for a young Israeli B2C app: The New York Times wrote about you, Forbes, Vice Magazine wrote about you, you also had some success on Product Hunt. It seems Sidekix is everywhere already.

With the the media it was a combination of hard work and… what can I say? We cold-pitched to a lot of places. PR is a lot of trial and error.

You reach out to many people, you make sure you have a good story. But you don’t just spam them with a million useless emails. You look into what’s actually interesting to journalists. What kind of stories they write about and you try to develop relationships and also keep them because you don’t want them to write about you just once. You want them to write about you multiple times, whenever you have interesting things coming down the pipeline.

– Was it something that you knew how to do from your past experience?

To some extent. It’s also very different in different countries. PR in Israel is not the same as in New York. But still, at the end of the day it’s all about relationship building.

So we reached out to a lot of people. We started having some success in some of the tech publications like Mashable and Lifehacker. And that lead to the New York Times. Actually, we didn’t even pitch to them.They found us. It was kind of amazing: I came out of a meeting one day and got an email from someone who said, “I found out about you in the NYT.”

I’m thinking, “The NYT? The New York Times? What is he talking about?” Then I looked it up and I saw, we were actually featured in the New York Times, along with Google and maybe one other app.”

You lay a foundation and good things happen afterwards.

With media, once you get a good story somewhere you will have more and more exposure because everyone wants the story. Also, it gets translated into different languages. When you get really big publications, all of a sudden you find a similar story in Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese or whatever it is. It helps to grow the market.

Our initial strategy was to do really well in one city, in London, and then spread it out, but we realized that our data was better than we thought. And from the growth perspective, it made more sense to open in as many cities as we could.
Plus, when you have a story in Mashable it’s not like people are only going to try you in one city. All these things are global. So we started opening in other cities in Europe, in the US. The world is global and once you’re getting this media exposure, you need to capitalize on it as quickly as you can.

Abbey road in Tel Aviv. Team members having fun with Sidekix /Pic: Sidekix archive

– How are you going to monetize the app? I assume there’s burn rate, and at some point you have to start showing revenues.

The business model revolves around special offers from local businesses. Pedestrians are the best impulse consumers. It makes more sense to get a special offer when you’re walking by a coffee shop than when you’re driving a car.

Our model is based on location but it’s actually smarter than that. It has to do with location plus context. As a navigation app we know where you are but we also know your state of mind because you’ve told us that you’re in the mood for a cup of coffee or you want to go to an art gallery, or you want to go shopping. It’s a smarter way to target offers to people who are in a specific place and a specific context or state of mind.

– Sounds like a lot of labour to bring the partners in.

Now we are in discussions with different partners because we obviously need to do it in a way that’s scalable. We can’t go and approach every local store. We need to work with a company that already has a merchant network, and do it through them.

The other thing we’re looking to do now is to partner with cities because cities hold the key to the data. In a lot of places, the data is freely available. For example, street lights, I literally had contact every single borough in London to request the geo location, height, wattage, and hours of operation of all of the street lights in that borough. That was extremely time consuming.

If you have cooperation with cities, there are ways to get this data that are just easier to process. Right now we’re in discussion with several city councils. By working with us, they can have interesting data around walking patterns, where people are going, where they’re not going.

It’s very useful for city planning. The way the partnership works is that we give them that kind of data, but they also help to promote us within the city.

– I’m trying to imagine what your day is like and what you are actually doing? The app is live in 100 cities, you have this city partnerships going on, and then there’s, I don’t know … this New York Times article and then there’s something else in Israel which is in Hebrew. Kind of a lot for a mother of two in new country, no?

My day is very, very busy. We have a team of eight people and as much as possible, I try to delegate things because there’s a lot of stuff going on.

I work, some days I stop to pick up the kids from kindergarten and school, and I’m with them until bed and then I start working again.

It’s also challenging to actually be with your kids when you want to be with them and not on your phone, as my daughter told me many times, “Mommy, put your phone away. Stop looking at your phone.”

Looking to the future: Sidekix aims to be the “go-to” app for walking in cities /Pic: Sidekix archive

– I want to hear a little bit more about Israel and how this country probably helped you to become an entrepreneur and to grow your startup.

I’m not sure I would be doing this if I lived elsewhere. There’s so much enthusiasm about startups. A lot of people get caught up in the startup world. It’s almost like a privileged world, here.

I’ve said this a lot, I think the ecosystem here is amazing. We were able to talk to pretty much anyone we wanted. We spoke to the founders of Waze, right after they were sold. Everyone knows everyone so it’s easy to reach people. There are some extremely talented people here.

I feel privileged to be doing this here. I think it would be harder in other places where there isn’t so much support for it.

– You went through two acceleration programs. There’s a lot of talk that those programs in general are a waste of time. Some people say “don’t go there.” Some say, “go there.” What did you get out of yours, except connections to your now investors?

I think it depends on who you are and it depends what stage you’re at. For me, the accelerators were like a mini business school. They’re most useful at the beginning when you’re figuring out your idea. That’s when you need the contacts, when you need to have those brainstorming sessions with lots of different people.

With the Hive we were there at this stage and it was very valuable for us. Similarly when we were in Mass Challenge in London, we weren’t at the beginning in terms of the product, but we were trying to figure out a new market. For us, just being able to go to London, have an office with 90 other startups sitting together there was huge. To have this instant network, workshops, all of these connections. That was very valuable.

At some time I think you reach a point with accelerators. Maybe you have a live product. Maybe you have funding and you have to be just super focused on what you’re doing. You don’t have time for “Let me just meet this person and brainstorm and see if this contact will turn into something useful for me.”

We’ve reached that point, where we’re very selective about even the events we go to, even the places where we pitch because as you see, we have a lot of stuff going on.

We need to make sure we’re developing the product in the right way. It takes a lot of time and that’s our main focus.
Some of those other things can become distractions when you’re at a later point, but I think they’re super useful in the beginning.

– Do you have a formulated mission?

We want to be the go-to app for walking in cities.

Our mission is to become the world’s leading navigation platform for urban pedestrians, as well as a leading provider of urban foot traffic analytics.

You use Waze when you drive. You use Moovit or public transportation apps when you take the bus or train. But you don’t have something dedicated for pedestrians. The reality is that most navigation, including Google Maps, is built for drivers and is created from the perspective of drivers, even in walking mode: they simply get you from point A to point B. We offer something different..

Also, we want to become a data resource around foot traffic patterns in the world because the world is becoming more walkable.

We think that what we’re doing is very relevant for the way the world is moving.

Get it on Google Play

Jenny Drezin

Education: BA Brown University, MA Columbia University

Favorite book: Season of Migration to the North

What would you do if you weren’t in hi-tech: Editorial writing   

Startup: Sidekix

Startup Count: 1

Current status:  Growing

Founded: 2015

Funded: Yes